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Women farmworkers call for labour centres to be opened

The Women’s Legal Centre is an African feminist legal centre striving to advance women’s rights and equality in the workplace, specifically those of womxn. It is in this light that we have joined forces with the Women on Farms Project in its discussions with the department of labour on farmworkers.

Many womxn who live and work on farms have suffered immensely during the Covid-19 lockdown. Womxn who rely heavily on Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) benefits have had no relief because the labour offices were closed to the public and the alternative measures put in place by the government were not cognisant of their hardships and proved to be ineffective.

Meagan Barber, a seasonal farmworker and single mother who lives in De Doorns in the Western Cape has had no income since March, when her work on a fruit farm ended.

“At the time we couldn’t hand in our UIF forms because the labour offices closed due to the lockdown. We are asking the president and the minister: ‘please, open the labour office for us or make a mobile office available’. We are dependent on our UIF payments,” she said.

Like many other womxn who live and work on farms and who do seasonal work, Barber depends on unemployment benefits to provide for her family in the months she is not employed on the farms.

Many of these womxn have approached the Women on Farms Project during the pandemic seeking information and assistance. The project is a nongovernmental organisation that has been working with womxn farmworkers in the Western Cape since 1995 and the Northern Cape since 2009. Its research has shown that womxn make up 57% of the workforce in the table-grape sector and 59% in the deciduous fruit industry in the Western Cape. In the apple industry, womxn account for 40% of the permanent workforce and 70% of the seasonal workforce.

The project has asked that the department of labour open its offices, make mobile offices available in rural areas and ensure that the farm owners and employers are providing personal protective equipment, hand sanitiser, protective gear and screening.

A letter was sent to Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi on May 11 further explaining the need for the government to help womxn farmworkers obtain their UIF payments. To date the Women’s Legal Centre and the Women on Farms Project have received no suitable response.

Although the two organisations welcome the measures put in place by the government under the Covid-19 Temporary Relief Scheme, for the most part womxn farmworkers have not been able to access such assistance. Measures such as these, put in place without a specific gendered lens, will not have the necessary effect and relief for womxn farmworkers.

We have indicated in our correspondence that the directive that provides guidance on how employers can apply for temporary financial relief and that UIF applications by employees should be made online, through emails or by fax are inadequate because they place the obligation on employers to recognise their employees’ rights and to make the necessary applications.

In addition, womxn farmworkers were dismayed to discover recently that the boxes placed outside closed labour centres for workers to submit hard copies of UIF forms, were found to be insecure because they are broken, open cardboard boxes. 

Passers-by can reach into the boxes and remove the forms or read confidential information such as ID numbers and banking details. Also, the boxes are not regularly emptied.

This is a clear example of how labour directives and guidelines that are not cognisant of the realities of women who work in precarious positions during a national crisis will be ineffective and will only contribute to the deepening economic crisis the country faces.

Womxn who work on farms are also the womxn who are most at risk of infection and spreading the virus if they are not adequately protected at their place of employment.

Elsa Lambrecht, who also lives in De Doorns and does seasonal farm work, is having difficulty submitting her UIF application because she does not have access to the internet and cannot travel.

“We do not have smartphones or laptops or computers which we can use to claim our UIF benefits online. Not all of us have social grants and we cannot continue to exist on food parcels from soup kitchens,” she said.

“Last year the minister said that UIF is a safety net for us farmworkers but right now there is no safety net. Please open the labour centres so we can claim our UIF benefits.”

The Women’s Legal Centre and the Women on Farms Project join Barber, Lambrecht and the many thousands of other womxn farmworkers to call on Nxesi and the president to immediately open labour offices, have a specific plan focused on economic relief farmworkers and, more broadly, to consider the reality of these vulnerable womxn when enacting legislation and directives at this extraordinary time.

Chriscy Blouws is an attorney at the Women’s Legal Centre and heads the Women in Work programme

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